Rodrigo Duterte Plays U.S. and China Off Each Other, in Echo of Cold War
By MAX FISHER / NOV. 3, 2016 / NYTIMES
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines traveled to Beijing recently, promising to announce his country’s “separation” from the United States and alarming the White House and his own defense secretary.
But something different happened. Instead, Mr. Duterte kept the alliance with the United States intact, appeared to reach an understanding with China to allow Filipino fishermen to return to disputed waters, and, by threatening a geopolitical realignment, distracted from American objections to his country’s growing human rights abuses.
Rather than switch allegiances between the two nations, Mr. Duterte managed to play them off each other, in that way improving his position with both and cementing his image at home as a strong nationalist unbeholden to foreign powers. And he did it while keeping his nation’s security guaranteed by a 65-year-old treaty with the United States.
Whether he knows it or not, Mr. Duterte is following a strategy that leaders used throughout the Cold War: balancing between the powers by threatening to change loyalties. That strategy’s track record illuminates why Mr. Duterte’s seemingly reckless actions have borne him such fruit, and may offer a hint of his goals.
The historian John Lewis Gaddis called this a “new kind of power balancing” in his 2005 book, “The Cold War: A New History,” which chronicles midsize nations in Asia, Africa and Europe that won concessions from the Soviet Union and the United States by hinting they might swap sides.
Though these threats were often empty, the superpowers so feared losing ground against one another that they quickly catered to the whims of smaller countries.
“The very compulsiveness with which the Soviet Union and the United States sought to bring such states within their orbits wound up giving those states the means of escape,” Mr. Gaddis wrote. “Tails were beginning to wag dogs.”
Mr. Duterte’s actions call to mind, for example, Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke with Moscow in the Cold War’s first years by declaring himself “nonaligned.” The United States rewarded him with economic aid; the Soviet Union, desperate to keep Tito from joining NATO, rewarded him with autonomy and shows of respect.
In the end, Tito won concessions from both sides, enhanced his image at home — and remained in the Communist fold. Rather than becoming a victim of the Cold War, he exploited it to his advantage.
Mr. Duterte, likewise, distanced himself from his American sponsors just enough that China, eager to win him over, offered him $9 billion in low-interest loans and allowed Filipino fishermen to return to certain disputed waters in the South China Sea. Yet Mr. Duterte returned home to a country that is still protected by the United States military.
“China didn’t woo Duterte. Duterte wooed China,” M. Taylor Fravel, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the deal in a Twitter post.
Mr. Fravel, in an interview, said he was “skeptical” that Mr. Duterte would follow through on his threats to cut ties with Washington, which he has already walked back. Still, the threats had helped him ease tensions with China.
“He thought the Philippines’ isolation from China was not good for the Philippines,” Mr. Fravel said. “And so he wanted to end that.”
Other Cold War leaders pitted the superpowers against each other as a means to win independence from them and extract concessions along the way. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt took handouts from both sides, for instance, and relied on them to eject a 1956 invasion by British, French and Israeli troops.
China, now a target of this strategy, was once among its cleverest exploiters. Mao Zedong, though aligned with the Soviet Union for decades, bragged of wielding a pair of disputed islands in the Taiwanese Strait as “two batons that keep Eisenhower and Khrushchev dancing, scurrying this way and that.”
This sort of balancing has another benefit: giving leaders a freer hand to act against their patron’s wishes.
In the weeks before Mr. Duterte threatened to separate from the United States, Washington had withheld an arms sale and increasingly criticized his support for vigilante and police violence that has killed 2,000 people. Now, American focus has shifted to preserving the alliance — something that security analysts doubt Mr. Duterte would ever really break. Read more…
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